The Rev. Emily Williams Guffey
All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Chicago
13 March 2016 • 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters:
I am about to do a new thing; do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, so that they might declare my praise.
Isaiah 43:16-21 (abridged)
I’m not what you’d call a “wilderness” type of person. I mean, I do love the outdoors. I went on a five-day hike in northern Michigan…once…the summer after eighth grade. And even though that really was awesome, since then I just have not prioritized going out into the wild as much as I have other things, like playing music, and playing sports, and getting too many degrees, and having children. But when I saw that today’s reading from Isaiah had to do with “the wilderness”, I thought I’d better brush up.
So I sat down with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of wine and watched Wild, the movie version of a 2012 memoir by a woman named Cheryl Strayed. Cheryl, after some personal trauma, decides to move from Minneapolis to Oregon and then to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from southern California up through Oregon and into Washington state.
When Cheryl begins, it turns out that even I (with only my post-eighth grade hike!) have more experience backpacking than she does. I mean, she has grown up with woods in the backyard, but hasn’t done the thing where you try to stay alive outside overnight.
But she has prepared the best she can: She has spent a couple months accumulating all the right gear – so much so that she’s not even sure how to carry it all in her enormous pack. She has researched the trail. She has mailed back-up supplies to various stops along the way, under her name, so she can replenish herself as she goes. It seems that she’s as prepared as she could be, save the experience of actually having done this before.
About two weeks into her hike, most of her urges to quit and turn around have worn off – most of time. She’s realized and remedied some of her initial naïveté – like how her portable gas stove really doesn’t work without the right kind of fuel, and how her boots (which she thought were good enough) are really terrible for her feet. Although she hikes alone, she has made friends with a few other solo hikers along the way and savors their occasional company. They give her some tips (because invariably they have more experience than she does), share stories, and mostly leave her alone, which she likes. They affirm – at this point two weeks in – what she knows from her trail guide already: that there’s a water tank ahead on this desert portion of the trail. Cheryl plans her water supplies accordingly, and – conveniently – runs out right before she reaches the tank.
It is empty. She’s about three days past the last stop where there was a water pump, and at least that far away from the next one – if there’s even anything in that one. She hasn’t seen anyone on the trail since the last stop.
What can she do, but keep going? Everything she sees is dry: dry sand, dry dirt, dry brush.
Then, she spies on the ground a glimmer of something reflecting the sun above. She runs over to it. It is a puddle. A dirty, murky, kinda smelly, gross-looking puddle.
Watching the movie, I think: “Oh, she’s so close! All she needs is water, and this is wet, but who would drink it?”
She takes her empty bottles out as fast as she can and fills them up with the brownish greenish water. She drops iodine tablets into them, and waits, and trusts that they will make this water potable.
Who drinks this stuff? It’s far from perfect, but it keeps her going.
I may not have much experience trying to stay alive outdoors for long periods of time, or even facing any kind of real physical insecurity – like with food or shelter – like so many in our neighborhood do. But I do know something – and I’ll bet you do, too – about trying to get by in new and sometimes strange places. About trying to make it another day when something – or someone – you depend on is no longer there. About recognizing I am lost and needing to take just one right step, and then another, and then another. Of thinking, and praying, along with the words of Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
These words could have been the words of the Hebrew people to whom the Lord God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah. In the political climate of their time, these people had been displaced from their home and sent into exile in Babylon. They, like Cheryl – and like many of us, in our own ways – were quite far away from home, although in their case, not by any choice of their own. They had lost everything: their land, their families, their livelihood, everything they knew and cherished. And had they lost their God as well?
Then, through Isaiah, God says to them, “Remember me? Remember me? I’m the one who, when all you could see was water, put dry land there in the middle so you could get through. And now, I’m going to do a new thing. Don’t just look for what you’ve seen before. I’m going to do a new thing. I’m going to put water – rivers of water – in the deserts of your lives, because you are my people, and I love you.”
Sometimes, the grace we need to get through a day does show up like a river in the desert. Other times, it’s a murky, questionable puddle into which we put our iodine tablets and hope it will be okay. But always, our desire for God and what is good will lead us to what we need.